The Achilles tendon is the largest and strongest tendon in the body. It functions to help control the foot when walking and running. Ruptures of the Achilles tendon commonly occur in individuals in their 30s and 40s. This age group is affected because these patients are still quite active, but over time their tendons tend to become stiffer and gradually weaken. These ruptures usually occur when an athlete loads the Achilles in preparation to pushing off. This can occur when suddenly changing directions, starting to run, or preparing to jump. These ruptures occur because the calf muscle generates tremendous force through the Achilles tendon in the process of propelling the body. Patients will feel a sharp intense pain in the back of their heel. Patients often initially think that they were ?struck in the back of the heel? and then realize that there was no one around them. After the injury, patients will have some swelling. If they can walk at all, it will be with a marked limp. It is very rare that a rupture of the Achilles is partial. However, a painful Achilles tendonitis or a partial rupture of the calf muscle (gastrocnemius) as it inserts into the Achilles can also cause pain in this area. The pain of an Achilles rupture can subside quickly and this injury may be misdiagnosed in the Emergency Department as a sprain. Important clues to the diagnosis are an inability to push off with the foot and a visible or palpable defect just above the heel bone in the back of the leg.
As with any muscle or tendon in the body, the Achilles tendon can be torn if there is a high force or stress on it. This can happen with activities which involve a forceful push off with the foot, for example, in football, running, basketball, diving, and tennis. The push off movement uses a strong contraction of the calf muscles which can stress the Achilles tendon too much. The Achilles tendon can also be damaged by injuries such as falls, if the foot is suddenly forced into an upward-pointing position, this movement stretches the tendon. Another possible injury is a deep cut at the back of the ankle, which might go into the tendon. Sometimes the Achilles tendon is weak, making it more prone to rupture. Factors that weaken the Achilles tendon are corticosteroid medication (such as prednisolone), mainly if it is used as long-term treatment rather than a short course. Corticosteroid injection near the Achilles tendon. Certain rare medical conditions, such as Cushing?s syndrome, where the body makes too much of its own corticosteroid hormones. Increasing age. Tendonitis (inflammation) of the Achilles tendon. Other medical conditions which can make the tendon more prone to rupture, for example, rheumatoid arthritis, gout and systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) - lupus. Certain antibiotic medicines may slightly increase the risk of having an Achilles tendon rupture. These are the quinolone antibiotics such as ciprofloxacin and ofloxacin. The risk of having an Achilles tendon rupture with these antibiotics is actually very low, and mainly applies if you are also taking corticosteroid medication or are over the age of about 60.
Although it's possible to have no signs or symptoms with an Achilles tendon rupture, most people experience pain, possibly severe, and swelling near your heel, an inability to bend your foot downward or "push off" the injured leg when you walk, an inability to stand on your toes on the injured leg, a popping or snapping sound when the injury occurs. Seek medical advice immediately if you feel a pop or snap in your heel, especially if you can't walk properly afterward.
Your caregiver will ask what you were doing at the time of your injury. You may need any of the following. A calf-squeeze test is used to check for movement. You will lie on your stomach on a table or bed with your feet hanging over the edge. Your caregiver will squeeze the lower part of each calf. If your foot or ankle do not move, the tendon is torn. An x-ray will show swelling or any broken bones. An ultrasound uses sound waves to show pictures of your tendon on a monitor. An ultrasound may show a tear in the tendon. An MRI takes pictures of your tendon to show damage. You may be given dye to help the tendon show up better. Tell the caregiver if you have ever had an allergic reaction to contrast dye. Do not enter the MRI room with anything metal. Metal can cause serious injury. Tell the caregiver if you have any metal in or on your body.
Non Surgical Treatment
Once a diagnosis of Achilles tendon rupture has been confirmed, a referral to an orthopaedic specialist for treatment will be recommended. Treatment for an Achilles tendon rupture aims to facilitate the torn ends of the tendon healing back together again. Treatment may be non-surgical (conservative) or surgical. Factors such as the site and extent of the rupture, the time since the rupture occurred and the preferences of the specialist and patient will be considered when deciding which treatment will be undertaken. Some cases of rupture that have not responded well to non-surgical treatment may require surgery at a later stage. The doctor will immobilise the ankle in a cast or a special hinged splint (known as a ?moon boot?) with the foot in a toes-pointed position. The cast or splint will stay in place for 6 - 8 weeks. The cast will be checked and may be changed during this time.
Operative treatment involves a 6cm incision along the inner side of the tendon. The torn ends are then strongly stitched together with the correct tension. After the operation a below knee half cast is applied for 2 weeks. At 2 weeks a brace will be applied that will allow you to move the foot and fully weight-bear for a further 6 weeks. After this you will need physiotherapy. Surgery carries the general risks of any operation but the risk of re-rupture is greatly reduced to 2%. The best form of treatment is controversial with good results being obtained by both methods but surgery is generally recommended for patients under 60 years of age who are fit and active with an intra-substance tear.